Crossing the Bar

When Dade's Chamber of Commerce considered backing FIU instead of FAMU in the fight for a new state law school, they figured it would be a walk in the park

Perhaps no one really believed the issue would lie dormant for long. Too much politics, too many passions. Indeed, the heated debate surrounding a new public law school in Florida -- whether one is needed, where it should be located, and who ought to run it -- energized the state legislature earlier this year. Boosters of Dade's Florida International University battled supporters of Florida A&M University, a predominantly black institution in Tallahassee, for the privilege of churning out more lawyers. After lawmakers were unable to decide the matter, the state's Board of Regents recommended that the issue be studied for a few more years before a verdict was reached.

But competition in politics and academia knows no bounds, and instead of subsiding, the debate has raged as intensely as ever, with both sides currently jockeying in anticipation of the new legislative session, which begins in February.

This past week, the politicking emerged briefly from the back rooms, as the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce entered the fray. A Chamber subcommittee had quietly drafted a resolution in support of a law school at FIU, a proposal that infuriated pro-FAMU forces when its existence became known. "I call it 'The Secret Document,'" rails Miami attorney and FAMU graduate Jesse McCrary, Jr. "These are clandestine dealings. I think it's the good ol' boy network again. Obviously the FIU boosters are behind it. They're just trying to see how much paper they can create so the Board of Regents thinks they're the only deserving institution to have the law school. It's really a power grab."

Throughout the debate, everyone has agreed on one issue: that the state's next public law school -- the third after Florida State University and the University of Florida -- ought to rectify ethnic disparities in the legal profession. (Blacks make up almost fourteen percent of the state population but only two percent of its lawyers, according to a Florida Bar survey; Hispanics account for a little more than twelve percent of the population but only four percent of the lawyers.) The burning question is: Who should run the new school? FAMU proponents claim a historical right because FAMU's old law school was shut down in the late Sixties, amid the state's desegregation efforts. FIU administrators brag that their institution is the most ethnically diverse public university in the state, with an unimpeachable record of minority recruitment. In the state legislature this past spring, Hispanic and Republican lawmakers tended to side with FIU, which has a 48 percent Hispanic student body; FAMU, whose enrollment is about 90 percent black, enjoyed the backing of black and Democratic lawmakers.

The legislative debate was so contentious, in fact, that two bills pitting FAMU against FIU were scuttled. When the Florida Board of Regents, which oversees Florida's nine public universities, discussed the matter late in the summer, they did the academic thing: They resolved to study the matter for several years. They did agree that any new school should be established in South Florida, because the region contains the highest concentration of minorities in the state (about 68 percent of Florida's Hispanics and 34 percent of its blacks) and because there is no public law school south of Tallahassee. The regents also encouraged the creation of a more extensive minority recruitment program at existing public and private law universities, recommended that a study group be established to evaluate potential sites and institutions, and gave permission to both FIU and FAMU to continue pursuing a law school.

Hence the Chamber of Commerce's draft resolution, which came before the Joint Executive Committee and Board of Governors at its monthly closed-door meeting this past Wednesday. The night before, FIU president Modesto "Mitch" Maidique had worked the phones lobbying members of the executive committee. The resolution might have passed without a hitch, had it not been for attorney George Knox, a vice chairman of the Chamber's executive committee and one of only several blacks at the meeting. He suggested rewording the draft resolution to favor neither FAMU or FIU. "The resolution, I believe, was potentially volatile and divisive along ethnic lines," Knox explains. "I reminded the Chamber that this was a very, very, very controversial question and I didn't feel that there had been enough debate about who should operate the law school." Adds one Chamber member who requested anonymity, "There were a lot of people in that room who had no idea how deep this issue ran along racial lines."

According to Clark Cook, executive director of the Miami Parking System and chairman of the Chamber's Post-Secondary Education Committees, the group will revisit the issue at its January meeting. When asked why FIU was favored in the draft resolution, Cook replied: "FIU is a very good Chamber member and deserves our support every chance we have. But independent of who operates the school, the Chamber needs strongly to strongly support the establishment of a public law school in South Florida, if for no other reason than economic development."

FAMU supporters remain miffed. "They were blindly going to take a position on a very important issue," snaps McCrary, who is not a Chamber member. "It's going to solidify and galvanize those people that are supportive of FAMU. If the Chamber of Commerce thinks they've been in a fight, they've got something coming. They're going to end up like somebody who gets caught in the middle of a drive-by shooting. They're going to get hurt."

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